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28 November 2017updated 30 Jun 2021 11:52am

This year, put aside the chocolate reindeer and try the “reverse advent calendar”

Thanks to universal credit, our country needs it.

By Felicity Cloake

Last week, I received a press release from a sports nutrition brand that confirmed my darkest fears about modern Britain. “Why not surprise them with [our] Advent Calendar filled with milk chocolate shapes with added whey protein?” it asked. How long have you got? I thought.

I’m not sure when such calendars stopped being something you gave up along with the belief in Father Christmas, but in recent years, the chocolate reindeer has been joined by £1,000 selections of old and rare whiskies and “24 days of beauty treats and cut-out selfie props”.

While a daily dram might help me cope with the endless maternal phone calls regarding turkey timings and festive travel arrangements, I can’t help feeling the spirit of the season demands something a little less self indulgent. Like many of the best ideas, the reverse advent calendar is laughably simple: find yourself a large box, feed it with a gift a day, then take it down to your local food bank, bearing in mind many will be closed for the holidays, so it’s better to give less earlier in the month than wait until Christmas Eve.

Booze is, unsurprisingly, not quite the kind of luxury they’re after. With many organisations warning that they will struggle to meet rising demand this Christmas, thanks in part to well-documented changes to the benefit system, which leave recipients with at least a six-week gap in payments, there are more pressing things on the list than a glass of sherry.

The Trussell Trust, Britain’s largest distribution network, has reported that banks operating in areas where universal credit has already been in operation for six months or more have seen an average 30 per cent increase in demand, compared to 12 per cent in areas where it hasn’t yet been fully rolled out. Last year, 8 per cent of adults were categorised by the Food Standards Agency as having low, or very low food security: four million Britons regularly struggled to afford to buy food. That number is likely to be considerably higher this year.

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Think practically when filling your box; though fresh mince pies are a lovely extra, many food banks operate out of church halls or council facilities with little storage space and no refrigeration, so tinned and packaged food is much more useful, preferably with a long shelf life so any surplus can be kept for the lean period between Christmas and Easter.

A typical food parcel given by the Trussell Trust includes cereal, soup (nothing that needs chilling), pasta, rice, pasta sauce, tinned beans, meat and fish, vegetables and fruit, tea or coffee and biscuits. Look for cans with ring pulls, because not everyone has a tin opener, or indeed a stove, which makes food that can be eaten cold, or prepared with just a kettle, like powdered soup or instant noodles, especially helpful.

Basic toiletries, from loo roll to tampons are always welcome, as are pet foods and baby supplies (many food banks won’t accept formula milk). Lastly, while nutrition is important, everyone deserves a treat at this or indeed any other time of year and Christmas cake and chocolate biscuits will keep well into spring.

About 2,000 food banks operate across the UK, give your local centre a call to see what they really need or, if you have more time than cash, find out about volunteering. Perhaps the glow of helping your fellow man, woman and child might even prove more warming than that daily shot of 60-year-old single malt.

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder